Another BC casualty


You  may not know her name, or you may know her only from her pageant past. Now you’ll know her as yet another victim of the breast cancer beast. Eva Ekvall, former Miss Venezuela, died Saturday. She was 28 years old.

28 years old.

She was diagnosed shortly after giving birth to her daughter, who is now two years old. Way too young to lose her mama. As far as I can tell, one is always too young to lose one’s mama.

Ekvall died Saturday at a hospital here in Houston. Another casualty of the breast cancer beast.

Her death is garnering attention because she was famous, and because she was so young. She was crowned Miss Venezuela when she was 17 years old, then clinched the third runner-up title in the Miss Universe pageant in 2001. After that, she worked as a model, actress and TV news anchor. All of those accomplishments are notable and interesting, and no doubt  her physical beauty propelled her to success. What impresses me most of all, however, has nothing to do with her work on TV or runways but her work as an author.

Fuera de Foco (“Out of Focus”) chronicles her struggle with cancer, and she included some graphic photos of herself during her cancer battle. Of the book she had said, “I needed to send the message of the need for cancer prevention.” She gets extra kudos from me for focusing on prevention as well as baring herself in less-than-flattering photos. In a culture some would say is obsessed with looks, she was brave to show the real side of cancer. The ugly truth.

For Ekvall to appear on the cover of the book with a shorn head must have been a scary thing for a woman who was raised in the pageant world and who made her living based on her appearance. She wasn’t shy about showing photos of herself as she was during treatment. “I hate to see photos in which I come out ugly. But you know what? Nobody ever said cancer is pretty or that I should look like Miss Venezuela when I have cancer.”

Nobody ever said cancer is pretty. Amen to that.

Anyone who’s endured the cancer “journey” or has cared for someone on the “journey” will find the above photo familiar. For Ekvall, the 8-month regime of chemotherapy, radiation, and then a mastectomy left her exhausted, bald, and puffy from steroids. Of this stage of her life, she said, “It’s painful to look at yourself in the mirror. Your face gets swollen. You lose every single hair in your body – your eyebrows, your eyelashes. You become some weird animal or something, you don’t recognise yourself. That was scary. Especially because my job has to do with my looks. I had to look decent and not appear sick.”

Such a tremendous burden: the pressure to look good and look  healthy. To paint a rosy picture of a situation that is anything but pretty. I am in awe of her courage and honesty.

When presented with the idea for the book and photos by Venezuelan photographer Roberto Mata, she was hesitant. “In the beginning I wasn’t sure if I looked good or not. Then I realised that wasn’t the point. I wasn’t supposed to look good, I had cancer. The pictures were very shocking because nobody had ever seen me that way. Nobody had seen me bald, without makeup.”

She had hoped that her book would help shatter the existing idea of female beauty and wanted to “move  breasts from the realm of aesthetics to that of health and disease.” Working toward awareness and away from shame and taboo was important to her. She spoke of the irony between a country known for plastic surgery and its resistance to breast cancer awareness: “There’s a huge taboo around breast cancer. But in this country [Venezuela] people get their boobs done every day so I don’t understand how breast cancer can be a problem when everybody’s showing their breasts.” The fact that Venezuelan women “rushed to get cosmetic surgery yet needed encouragement to get mammograms” confounded her, and she set out to change that.
Ekvall was honest about her anger toward her cancer. “I was very angry [when diagnosed] because I should have known. My aunt had breast cancer twice and my grandmother died from breast cancer. And I just let time go.When I got sick and knew my breasts were sick it’s like I didn’t want them any more. I wasn’t fond of them. I was angry at them. So getting rid of them, even though it was horrible because I had all these scars, meant I felt better.”She went on to say that “getting a mastectomy is not what I’d planned for my life, it’s not what I wanted to happen,” and that the fear of recurrence would always rule. “That’s the fear you live with for the rest of your life after you get cancer. But I made sure I told my story.”

I’m so glad she did tell her story.

R.I.P., Eva.